As long as you’ve got your elf

My name’s elle and I’m a recovering hypochondriac.

Sort of.

Hypochondria is a confusing word. It officially describes a state in which someone is excessively concerned about their health – often to the point of neurosis. Medical dictionaries, depending on how indulgent they’re feeling, describe the concern-making health problems as ‘non-present’ or ‘imaginary’.

The colloquial use is broader – anyone who mentions their health a lot becomes a hypochondriac. But the medical definition casts a negative shadow. Talk about your health too much, and the assumption is that some of it MUST be imaginary. Imaginary is a short-step from big fat faker.

So, why do I (did I) talk about my health all the time? (Qualifications: physical health; face-to-face convos.) There are two interesting childhood aspects that may have had an influence.

I was my parents’ first child, but I was hot on the heels of a late-ish miscarriage. I was also born with a collapsed lung and got whisked away to an incubator the minute I emerged. These three factors all likely make a parent nervy about a child’s health, and the Oliver James school of nurture suggests I would therefore respond like someone whose health was a nervy thing.

I asked my mother whether she thought she might have treated my sister and I differently because of this and she snapped that she’d never do such a thing. But she’s uncomfortable talking about anything emotional and defensive when asked about her parenting, so it was never going to be a fruitful conversation.

The other issue is my mother directly. I can’t remember a day growing up when she didn’t complain about some physical problem – usually a headache. This never bothered me, for the simple reason that I saw it as natural. So it follows that it felt natural to me to constantly announce my physical state to the world. I didn’t notice that most people don’t do this.

Mum further muddied the waters (honestly, I love her really) by finding ME annoying, without recognising the same traits in herself. Her aforementioned lack of communication skills made her a bit passive-aggressive, such that she would refer to me as ‘the dying swan’. I’m sure she had no idea how much this upset and alienated me – any parents reading, take note and take care when talking to your kids.

But however badly my mother responded, the truth is that it IS annoying when people catalogue their ailments, especially as the listener is usually powerless to improve the situation.

Fortunately I stopped living with my mother, and some time later started living with a young man who explained this to me in mostly polite, meaningful terms. We didn’t see eye to eye on this straight away (that’s putting it mildly, but the tale of hell-week in Northumberland can wait), and it is incredibly hard to change a verbal tic that’s been ingrained over decades, but I’ve mostly managed it.

I still have to consciously stop myself saying things from time to time, but for the most part I’ve lost the desire to share news of headaches and strange twinges. Not to say that every issue goes stoically unmentioned, but I have improved. I managed to get a throat infection a few weeks ago without J realising I was falling sick – I was so proud of myself.

Right. I’m off to find some aspirin – suffering from terrible period pains.


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